As Lisa DeFrance escorted her fourth-graders out to the Meadowlark Elementary School fields Monday morning to watch the Great American Solar Eclipse, many of her students asked what time it was.

It was just before 11 a.m. but it felt like much later in the day, with dusklike shadows, dimmed sunlight and cooler temperatures settling over the public elementary school on Salt Lake City’s west side.

And as other classrooms joined them, the students talked excitedly about the astronomical changes as they gazed up through protective glasses to watch the eclipse advance, all with a wonder that DeFrance described as “fantastic.”

The eclipse was not just a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the students, DeFrance said, but a unifying one as well.

“It speaks to the power of hands-on learning,” she said minutes before the eclipse reached its peak in Utah, around 11:33 a.m. MDT. “In just a few hours, these kids have a sense of community and engagement because of [the eclipse].”

Schools across Utah — including Salt Lake, Granite and Murray school districts in Salt Lake County — kicked off the 2017-2018 school year Monday with ready-made learning on hand.  Teachers across Utah and the country incorporated viewing events and eclipse-centric lessons into their school schedules, emphasizing safe viewing of the rare event with authorized protective eyewear or indirect watching devices for students and faculty alike.

At West High School in Salt Lake City, students, teachers and other staff gathered in the football stadium for eclipse viewing after lunch. The nearly 3,000 students either filed into seats in the stands or took to the field as the two-minute peak of the eclipse came and went — all as a soundtrack of 1960s music played on the stadium’s sound system.

West High School Principal Ford White said having the school community gather for a shared experience made for a memorable start to the school year. 

“It was a joy to be out there,” Ford said. “I walked around the school and watched teacher communicate so much great knowledge about the eclipse to their students.” 

Educators at Meadowlark started planning for the eclipse last spring, with the school’s STEAM coordinator Wendi Laurence, previously an aerospace curriculum specialist for NASA, spearheading efforts to make it more tangible for students.

Kids made planetary models of the eclipse and fashioned indirect viewing devices such as pinhole cameras and solar projectors. Teachers led discussions on the solar system and how Earthlings fit into the universe. 

“We sit on this little planet and we spin, but you don’t realize it,” Laurence said. “But when you watch the moon block the sun, you realize you’re part of a bigger system and it becomes real to you.”

As the eclipse crept closer to its 11:33 a.m. climax, students spread out all across the Meadowlark playground fell quiet. Some students were confused as to why the sun wasn't completely covered and commented on its changing shape as it thinned to a crescent.

“It‘s a banana,” one student exclaimed.

”The moon made the sun smile,” another said.

For weeks, 9-year-old Elike D’Uhlst was excited to watch the eclipse and said getting to see it through glasses, a pinhole projector and a reflector made the first day of school even better.

”It looks pretty cool,” D’Uhlst said before pressing his handmade cardboard reflector to his face. “This is special”

Correction: An earlier version of this story appeared under the wrong byline.